(Meden Mbwoga, from the new album Ndoni)
As a blues musician, age can certainly help to give your audience the impression that your music is the result of a lifetime of sorrow and experience, but says the relatively youthful Cameroonian blues musician Roland Tchakounté, “In Africa, we have a tendency to do things backwards, and we usually think it takes a lifetime to reach youth." (Tchakounté is touring the Netherlands next month; details at the end of this article).
We hear the blues and think of the Mississippi Delta, but the blue note (the note that characterises the music we call blues) was born out of the tragic collision of three worlds brought about by the vicious triangle of the slave trade. And blue notes are often seen as akin to relative pitches found in traditional African work songs (according to Wikipedia).
The American and African versions share the same source and spring from the same impulse, and in Tchakounté's music we hear the two being merged. “My songs tell basically the same stories once told by blues pioneers,” he says. “Writing songs and singing them is my way of coping with life.”
His most recent two albums – last year's Blues Menessen and now Ndoni, which he released 3 weeks ago – do precisely that. By exorcizing his own frustrations in song, Tchakounté follows in the footsteps of the original bluesmen who cured their spleen by expressing themselves through music, knowing that it takes a shot of the blues to kill the blues.
He might be relatively young, but he has enough life experience to draw on. “My father never talked much about his past,” remembers Roland, who was born in Douala, but is now based in Paris. “People who live in exile don’t wish to be reminded of what they had to go through. I guess I got that from him, I rarely mention Cameroon in front of my own children, I have too many traumatic childhood memories.”
Selling fabric by the yard, the Tchakountés lost everything when their makeshift shop caught on fire one night. Roland remembers that things were never the same afterwards, as his parents couldn’t get over a disaster that took away most of their spirit of survival, alongside their savings: “I was ten at the time. Someone woke us up and told us that there was nothing left. Like most people, my parents didn’t have a bank account, all the money they had was hidden in a cache in the shop, and it burned with the rest of their stuff. They never found the resources to get out of poverty after that.”
(Live performance of Anetchana. Original version is on the album Ndoni)
Roland’s worst recollections are not so much linked to the lack of everything as to the humiliation of seeing his parents beg for the help of friends, neighbours, and associates they thought could open doors for their children. As a result, he lived his teenage years in anger, praying for the day he would be able to migrate. “I used to say I would rather be in jail in France than free in Cameroon. One of my cousins tried to dissuade me to go, warning me that Europe could be cold, and I’m not talking about the weather only, but I knew there was no way I could have a future if I stayed.”
It wasn’t until 1989 that Tchakounté finally made it to France. Years of working hard and saving money, just for a chance to risk his life on one of those flimsy fishing boats that sail off the coast of Nigeria with little chance of ever reaching their final destination. “I couldn’t swim, and it was about fifty of us on this boat, but I didn’t care. Those who say that migrants are risking their lives for no reason don’t know what they’re talking about. We risk our lives because the life we leave behind is not a life. We know that we’re doomed if we stay, that’s why I was not afraid to die. I was lucky enough not to die, but others did. One of my friends left on one of these boats. When they were at sea, the smugglers asked the migrants for more money. My friend couldn’t pay, so the smugglers threw him overboard.”
(Title track from the album Blues Menessen)
Roland’s own boat journey to Europe failed, and he finally found his way to Paris on a plane after years of fighting to get a visa. In a matter of months, after a brief spell in college, he had hustled up a job and met his wife of twenty years with whom he made a pact: “I promised her I would always provide for my family. The counterpart was that I would be free to lead my musical life as long as it didn’t keep me from putting food on the table.”
True to his word, Tchakounté has led a double life since, conciliating family and music with the skill of a juggler. “I will never regard music as a trade,” he says. “In Africa, music is a way of life. There’s something holy about it that lifts up the soul, and it’s always been part of my life.” In addition to the traditional lullabies he heard his aunts sing as a child, he remembers being especially fond of the complaints of the Peul people, the nomadic Sahel tribes that traveled all the way to Cameroon with their herds when he was growing up.
The incentive to play didn’t come until a hoodlum friend gave him the guitar presented by parents who hoped it would pacify his instincts. In the end, it was Roland’s thirst for a meaningful existence that the instrument quenched: in less than a year, he was proficient enough to lead his own band in New Bell, a working-class Douala neighborhood. In addition to Jimi Hendrix, whose version of Hey Joe provided him with the three basic chords of the blues, Roland imitated soul greats James Brown and Wilson Pickett whose records reigned supreme on the local airwaves in the seventies and eighties.
Finding his voice as a Bluesman
By the time he resettled in Paris, Roland was playing a mix of soul and rock that owed more to Bruce Springsteen than to Son House, and it was in this light that he recorded in first album in 1990, Bred Bouh Shuga Blues. Although he toured regularly until the end of the millennium, Tchakounté was still looking for his musical persona. It wasn’t until 2002 that he really found it when he heard a recording of Crawling King Snake by John Lee Hooker in the CD section of a suburban supermarket—of all places.
Instantly reminded of the Peul laments and ballads of his youth, Roland discovered the real meaning of the word “blues”: “The title of my first album had the word blues in it. I was aware of people like B.B. King, Buddy Guy and Albert Collins, but their music didn’t really speak to me. And when I was a kid in Cameroon, Blues didn’t refer to this music, it was the generic term used for the slow dance. Hearing John Lee Hooker for the first time was a true revelatory moment. At first, I thought he was an African artist who had Americanized his name. The spontaneity, the apparent lack of structure, the fire and raw energy, the honesty I was hearing changed my whole perception of music, and I knew on the spot what direction I wanted to give to my music from then on.”
(Mback Tchann yogsou kidi, from the album Ndoni)
The example set by Malian singer and guitarist Ali Farka Touré had already given Roland the incentive to sing in his native language. Mixing the spirit of raw blues with his bamiléké dialect came as a natural conclusion in the wake of his revelation. “Bamileke is my mother tongue, words come to me naturally when I want to translate my experience and my vision of life into lyrics,” he says.
Yet the full conversion from blues-rocker to griot didn’t take place until Roland met the first of his two present-day companions. Mick Ravassat, a noted member of the Paris guitar milieu, was performing with several bands in 2003, but the perspective of trading electric licks with a bluesmen from Cameroon inspired him at once. “Destiny throws strange things at us,” Tchakounté remarks. “I had been invited to a club one night. I was tired and didn’t feel like going, but this friend of mine really insisted so I said I’d check it out for a few minutes. When I got in, Mick was taking the stage and he started doing the kind of slide guitar work I wanted for my new project. I called him the next day and hired him after talking with him for less than five minutes. It was that quick, we jelled right away.”
(Fang Am - extract; from the album Ndoni)
With Ravassat on board, Roland was ready for a recording project that would mirror his new musical ambitions, and the release of Abango in the early spring of 2005 started the ball rolling. By the beginning of June, the duet was in the Windy City at the invitation of Chicago Blues Festival coordinator Barry Dolins, clearly under the spell of their atypical album. Roland and Mick were scheduled to do a thirty-minute spot on the Friday, but audience reaction was so overwhelming that Dolins invited them for a second helping the next day on the main stage. “After the concert, people lined up to buy the CD, I had tears in my eyes. This was the boost I needed to convince myself that I was on the right path.”
One thing leading to another, Roland Tchakounté rapidly became a household name on the blues circuit, from Montreal to Cognac. While burning up the blues highway, he realized some of the rhythmic colours he envisioned were missing from his duet, and it was Ravassat who suggested they get in touch with percussionist Mathias Bernheim. Creators from horizons as diverse as Brazil, Morocco and the Balkans have hailed this musician’s musician as a master of his art, but Bernheim’s delicate touch and tasty dabs have never been featured better than with Roland and Mick.
(Smile - extract; from the album Ndoni)
Tchakounté’s next album was recorded as the duet morphed into a trio. Waka, released in early 2008, fully illustrated the all-embracing appeal of the group, Mick’s delicate blues licks and Mathias’s superb rhythmic patterns creating a setting that balanced Roland’s African roots to perfection. This sense of universality was precisely what Tchakounté had been looking for.
Blues Menessen and Ndoni bring to a climax the talent of the Roland Tchakounté band. As he roams through the dark corridors of his mind, Roland cannot keep from questioning the human soul once again: “I will never understand how people can inflict so much pain and suffering to their neighbours. I will never accept the fact that happiness is limited to a handful of stolen moments for so many.”
Roland’s music is a holy cry born from a desperate desire to believe in humankind. When he fights through song the bitterness that often keeps him awake at night, he gives us proof that, regardless of his origins, he is the very essence of a blues man.
Roland Tchakounté is touring the Netherlands from the 6th - 14th of April
6 apr. 20:30 uur Korzo, Den Haag
11 apr. 20:00 uur De Oosterpoort, Groningen
12 apr. 20:00 uur Vredenburg Leeuwenbergh, Utrecht
13 apr. 20:15 uur De Doelen, Rotterdam
14 apr. 21:00 uur Podium Mozaiek, Amsterdam